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Under the skin of Enzo Ferrari – racing driver, businessman, brand builder

Enzo Ferrari was one of the first reluctant marketers – a man who, in order to be the fastest, came to realise the value of a strong sports brand in the detritus of post-war Italy. This story of one man and his brand proves that heritage can be an anchor, not a weight, in a time of rapid technological change.

When you first walk into The Design Museum’s latest exhibition you are bathed in an almost unbearably intense red light. The colour of Mediterranean passion, a shade that comprises one third of Italy’s flag. It’s rosso corsa, the colour most famously associated with the cars of Ferrari – the subject of new exhibit Under the Skin.

That entrance room is designed to introduce visitors to the vibrant personality Enzo Ferrari planted into his brand. Born in Italy’s Modena – a province he barely strayed away from throughout his 90-year life – the founder became a brand builder when he put his name to his own cars in 1947, following a career racing for Alfa Romeo. In the following years Ferrari forged the standard for automotive design, sponsorship deals and team marketing in the racing world, all against the backdrop of post-war Italy.

The maturity in marketing and design shown by a man who was, fundamentally, an uneducated driver, came not from desires for money or prestige but from a love of driving fast, according to Under the Skin’s co-curator, Gemma Curtin.

“The whole development of Ferrari came out of [Enzo Ferrari’s] passion for winning races,” she said. “In order to win races you have to keep advancing technology – using the latest materials, lightening your car … obviously a very expensive endeavour.

“He realised the importance of sponsorship very early on – if you look at photographs from the 1930s, the Scuderia Ferrari [racing team] vans feature Pirelli sponsorship.”

Ferrari understood the value of design (both on and off the racetrack) and keeping his sponsors sweet. The brand was one of the first to produce year books and commissioned the hottest designers of the day to create their covers; those displayed at The Design Museum are as much relics of graphic design as they are collectible racing merchandise. Promotional ‘gifts’ such as expensive silk scarves bearing Ferrari’s logo were continually made to maintain client, sponsors and supplier relationships, too.

The rearing horse logo – a regal, heraldic figure – was not, however, Ferrari’s handiwork. It came from Francesco Baracca, one of Italy’s most successful World War I fighter pilots, who emblazoned the horse onto his planes. When he was killed in 1918, his mother suggested Ferrari use it on his team’s cars ‘for good luck’.

The personal weight carried by the prancing logo led it to become something that Ferrari stridently defended. He once sued a salami manufacturer who selected a pig in a similar pose, and aside for minor tweaks, kept it as close to the original as possible.

For Curtin, the race horse’s attributes ­– muscular, intelligent, fast – are representative of the excitement Ferrari still hopes to stir among his customers and fans. “Ferrari has always stressed the pleasure of driving,” she says.

This is also translated into the typographical logo with the continuous ‘F’ – “a sense of dynamism even in font”. The horse and brand name are customarily placed alongside the Italian flag on a background that’s yellow – the colour of the founder’s beloved Modena.

“It’s not just about racing [for Ferrari],” says Curtin. “There’s a certain Italian style, which is about attention to detail and a certain flamboyance, a confidence. There is a sense that there’s an equal emphasis on the engineering and the aesthetic beauty at play – one isn’t more important than the other. I think that is something that is particularly Italian.”

The exhibition is called Under the Skin for two reasons: the chassis, engines and scale models on display demonstrate the sculptural craftsmanship that goes into design under the hood, while rooms dedicated to Enzo Ferrari convey how much of the Italian’s personality was woven into the brand. According to Curtin, he was single-minded as a businessman and a motivator of men, much like Apple’s Steve Jobs was said to be.

“He didn’t like to leave Modena, but people came to him,” says Curtin. “In the early photographs you see of him he’s smiling, but at the end he’s always in dark glasses, remote.

“His office was at the gate of [the Ferrari HQ in] Maranello so he could always see everything coming in and out. I don’t think he took much time off.”

Ferrari, who died in 1988, never saw the hybrid, electric and autonomous eras puttering over the horizon, which will ultimately close the chapter on his brand’s golden petrol years of the 20th century.

Despite the provenance wrapped up in its ostentatious engines, the company is not hiding away from the future; its head of design, Flavio Manzoni, has said all new Ferrari models will be hybrids from 2019. The redefined technical specifications that the new technologies require, he believes, “can only add stimulation, inspirations and more appeal” to the cars.

Perhaps Ferrari’s greatest branding challenge will be to convince its fan base –those who truly love the smell of petrol and their foot on the pedal – that the future will not always look the same. This could involve offering its cars as services or experiences, says Curtin, rather than as a product to purchase and drive every day.

“But it will be a difficult transition and it does divide people,” she says. “And it’s interesting to have this exhibition now because everything is changing. This is very much the age of the petrol-fuelled engine, but Ferrari are very much embracing electricity.

“Because of their staff, I imagine they’ll be the people that become leaders in whatever is next.”

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